People vs. Project development doesn't have to be the standard.
The Biden Administration did not pull its punches when setting clean energy targets for the next 15 years. From lowering emissions for the good of public health to electric vehicles, the Biden Administration tried to cover all its bases to fight climate change. Among the Inflation Reduction Act’s ambitious climate figures are goals of 80% renewable energy generation by 2030 and 100% by 2035.
However, we must increase our environmental efforts for our cumulative impacts to turn the tide on the fight against climate change. The most recent reports indicate that “By 2035, the federal analysis shows clean and renewable sources will make up about 86% of US energy, spurred in large part by the IRA.” That’s great news, but it’s also 14% short of the mark and will limit the ability of the IRA to fulfill its environmental justice promises.
The IRA and Environmental Justice Issues
These promises include providing access to clean energy for minority communities in a way that is compatible with their current needs. Clean energy may be a concern for one community while another might be trying to get sidewalks and street lighting developed.
While we increase our renewable development to offset climate change, environmental justice considerations must be at the forefront of the conversation. An increase in development means an increase in impacts on the environment and community members alike. How do we reach our climate goals without negatively impacting overburdened communities or sacrificing environmental quality?
Permitting Actions, Project Delays, and The People
Part of our problem is that the lengthy review process makes it hard to get anything done, and permit applicants see severe delays on their proposed projects that could yield a significant, positive environmental impact. That in turn means that environmental permitting, spurred by the best intentions, is preventing projects from helping people via vehicles such as the IRA.
The IRA’s efforts to support the federal government’s green energy goals and the public health of disadvantaged communities are just the beginning.
Now, managing the needs of the environment with the needs of specific communities is both an art and a science.
Environmental Health Versus People?
Any clean energy courtroom battle gives the impression of a clear choice between helping the environment and helping people. The implication is that if we want to limit fossil fuels and clean up the world, we must do so at the expense of local towns and communities, which must eat those costs in the form of local contamination or other nuisances.
This is far too simplistic an approach.
Consider the case of a solar array. One of the most common charges leveled at such projects is that they can leach contamination into the surrounding water and soil, creating health hazards. In theory, environmental laws exist to completely erase these negative impacts, but environmental quality amidst development is a complicated process.
Permitting programs may protect the habitat of an endangered species, but they are not coded to weigh the literal downstream impacts of development from one community to a disadvantaged one. What kind of gap in access to clean energy is created between these two already separated communities?
Then there’s the fact that while projects may lead to a slight increase in risk locally, they’ll lead to a huge reduction in health risks nationally – a net win for any community member (or bird). Health impacts on a community are a very real and known risk of land development and a risk that permitting agencies outline extensively with red tape.
Exhausting Permitting Pipelines Aren’t Helping
Regulatory and permitting processes exist to ensure that developers make appropriate efforts to ensure their projects won’t hurt the environment or the people living nearby. Legislation, ranging from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts to local regulations, is founded on such honorable intentions. From air permits to New York water pollution control, federal agencies and regulations fill the land development cycle.
The result, unfortunately, is that such legislation often contributes to delays. The inability to move through the process in a timely fashion means developers run out of time, money, patience … or all three. And those delays often kill the very projects the permits were meant to accommodate.
Low-income communities, disproportionately composed of Black and brown families, are usually the ones who bear the brunt of project delays. Delays in renewables projects mean delays in access to better air quality and more time spent living in a dangerous environment.
For example, minority communities are more likely to experience the impacts of fossil fuel-related costs, ranging from increased asthma in children to heart disease in adults. Once again, this means that the longer it takes for a renewable developer to receive the necessary permit, the longer the communities are breathing in air pollution.
When renewable energy projects get held up by environmentally motivated permits, then it really does become environment vs people.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Environmental Justice Analysis
Too often, binary thinking obscures the basic truth that two things can be true at the same time. In this case, fewer permitting roadblocks will help the environment and ordinary Americans.
The very simple fact is, the more clean energy projects get greenlit in America, the more the country as a whole will benefit from increased health and cheaper utility costs. Each of those projects will mean an attendant reduction in fossil fuel use, helping the environment.
We can only see such benefits if we see clean energy projects to fruition, though. That means overcoming permitting hurdles – ideally by pulling back on the amount of power they have to stall out projects – and by generating buy-in from locals.
One of the main reasons many communities are willing to react strongly to proposed clean energy infrastructure is that they perceive little to no benefit on a local level. And because they feel cut out of a deal that could hurt them but won’t help them, they – understandably – have little incentive to participate.
By supporting ej communities, affected communities are able to develop at a rate that considers their socioeconomic realities without leaving them to rely on fossil fuels while the world traditions. When we address environmental justice concerns, we are able to truly support communities and our climate goals.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Environmental Justice Grants supported by the IRA can help us close this gap in accessibility and development. Their environmental justicescreening tool, EJScreen allows developers to see if their sites qualify as environmental justice communities. This tool uses demographic and environmental data to inform decision-making. Community sentiment towards these developments can then be assessed in Transect. The sentiment of the community and the regulatory support from Washington D.C. itself provide land developers with the information necessary to continue developing green energy access points for disadvantaged groups while contributing to our climate goals.
Showing people that projects can benefit local communities, either by providing local power or a cut of the profits, is the way to go. But that means lighting a fire under environmental due diligence.
Simplify the Permitting Process, Increase Environmental Justice Today
When these permitting decisions get drawn out, even if it’s for the perfectly legitimate reason that adhering to the law takes time, it lends the appearance that there’s something wrong, making folks wonder “just what are they finding over there … and should we worry?” It also gives status-quo interest groups more room to make their case.
One of the best ways to overcome the delays to clean energy installation projects, innocent or otherwise, is to provide the smoothest possible path to permitting. This is also one of the most powerful means of helping the very communities that social justice grants seek to aid.
Transect is here to assist. Our due diligence software helps developers and stakeholders stay up to date with permitting changes and requirements, so you never have to delay a project while waiting to find out how these impact you. Instead, our ready-in-minutes reports give you the information you need to move forward quickly on any project, respecting both the environment and the people who live in it.
Ready to learn more? Schedule a demo and let Transect become your permitting partner today.